Four hours of work for a 15-minute thrill may not sound like a reasonable payoff, but for backcountry ski enthusiasts Tony Doyle and Trent Sexton, a 2,000-foot descent on skis on a ribbon of snow in June can pump enough adrenaline into the body to make it all worth it.
“Adventure is why I came to Alaska,” Doyle said in front of a healthy crowd Dec. 21 for the latest installment of the KDLL Adventure Talks at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.
Doyle and Sexton were on hand to present a colorful slideshow of photos and videos taken from a variety of their backcountry adventures over the past decade. In front of a ski-hungry crowd, the two friends shared their experiences not as a way to show off, but to inspire local skiers to take their wares to the untamed wilderness, which, by the way, is free of charge.
If fares at local ski resorts have become a financial burden, Doyle and Sexton made sure to convince the crowd that there’s a different way to do things.
Pointing out some of their favorite hotspots, including Mt. Manitoba, Fresno Ridge, Tenderfoot Ridge, Icon Mountain and Stormy Peak — all within a day’s hike from Summit Lake Lodge along the Seward Highway — the duo shared some advice on slopes that often average 55 degrees of angle. Advice such as always take your time trying to figure out the best path by an open waterfall, something Sexton found out the hard way as a teenager on “Icon,” a peak that towers over the Tern Lake intersection of the Seward and Sterling highways.
The most paradigm-shattering idea Doyle and Sexton’s presentation unveiled was the breathtaking locales that lie within hours of Kenai and Soldotna. It was most obvious in pictures taken of Stormy Peak, which the two climbed and swiftly descended in April 2015 and is accessible from Summit Lake Lodge for experienced backcountry skiers. Both men spent one day getting out to the mountain, where they set up camp for the second day. As the sun set on Day 1, the alpenglow rays of sunlight last licked the uppermost peak of Stormy in what Doyle and Sexton described as magnificent, and it set the stage for a pleasant ski down from the same ridge the next day under the warm spring sunlight.
Doyle and Sexton and mutual friend Craig Barnard set skins to the bottom of their skis and made their way up the ridge, where they encountered the usual line of cornices hanging over the side of the peak.
An experienced skier knows to stay away from cornices, which can easily break from the weight of a human body and tumble down the steep slope of a mountain, but the trio found a section of ridge that was devoid of cornices, and that marked their entry down the slope.
“It was pucker factor time,” Sexton said.
Another jaw-dropping backdrop was the Gendarme Couloir located on Fresno Ridge, also accessible from Summit Lake Lodge. A couloir is the name for a steep, narrow gully on a mountainside, and the Gendarme Couloir was one that beckoned to Doyle and Sexton in 2009. The photos presented offered viewers a look at the kind of late spring powder runs that are otherwise unseen to the general public.
Growing up in Phoenix, Doyle did not share the company of the extreme mountains that Alaska has to offer.
However, a 21-day mountaineering course in Colorado helped open Doyle’s mind to the possibilities that arise by simply setting foot outside of one’s door.
After his high school graduation in 1977, Doyle hitchhiked to Alaska to discover what he had been missing.
“The farther I got north, the happier I got,” he said.
If the lifestyle change didn’t excite him enough, the scenery sure did.
“I thought, ‘Wow! Mountains!’” Doyle said.
By the next year, Doyle said he had his first pair of metal-edged skis and leather boots, and the collection has since grown to over a half dozen pairs of skis and boots.
In his experiences on the slopes, Doyle eventually met Sexton, who took to the mountains via a very different patch.
Born and raised in Alaska, Sexton was an Alyeska kid, spending a lot of time in his youth on the slopes of the popular downhill resort in Girdwood. When he wasn’t busy carving trails there, Sexton was burying his nose in Powder Magazine, a publication for ski enthusiasts, with his best friend.
“We were inspired by what we saw in there exploring mountains,” Sexton said, noting that the photos and stories in Powder opened his mind to backcountry skiing, where the cost of a lift ticket was the sweat on his brow.
The extra work was evident in Sexton’s shared story of his young self attempting to scale and ski down Icon. After years of his youth spent looking at the couloir that led up to the peak, Sexton decided one day at age 18 that he would conquer it.
The biggest obstacle proved to be the abundant alder bushes that made the trek up difficult. Sexton carried his skis by his side, instead of on his back, to pass through the foliage more efficiently, and once he was out, he began climbing.
Inspired by European skiers for their mastery of technical terrain, Sexton clamped his skis on and began the descent down a narrow river of summer snow that adorned the side of the mountain.
The peninsula skiers’ presentation implied that the extra work put into accessing places, such as Tenderfoot Ridge, is worth it. Doyle, Sexton and Barnard spent a day in May 2015 getting to the top of Tenderfoot, also named Ski Hill Ridge, where the late spring snow was plenty.
“You feel like the Silver Surfer or something,” Doyle quipped, referencing the comic book hero.